Lower Merion gives student entrepreneurs a leg up

From left, Austen Tom, Mike Robbins, and Bryce Williamson began their Freshmen Select clothing company while students at Lower Merion high schools. Lower Merion's Innovation Center offers grants, space, and mentors.
From left, Austen Tom, Mike Robbins, and Bryce Williamson began their Freshmen Select clothing company while students at Lower Merion high schools. Lower Merion's Innovation Center offers grants, space, and mentors. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 20, 2014

The three best friends started their first business when they were 12 years old, selling T-shirts.

"We'd take a Sharpie and draw designs on them," recalled Austen Tom.

"They sold," chimed in his buddy, Mike Robbins, laughing. At $20 a pop.

Today, the entrepreneurs run an up-and-coming clothing line called Freshmen Select, peddling T-shirts, hoodies, and other apparel through online retail sites, aided by slickly produced videos and social media.

Their adolescent foray into marketing is easy to remember because it wasn't that long ago. Tom and Robbins are 20, while their partner, Bryce Williamson, is 21.

It is said that in business, timing is everything. The three started Freshmen Select in 2012 with a big boost from the launch of the Lower Merion School District's Innovation Center, a groundbreaking effort to promote entrepreneurship and incubate business start-ups by high school students and recent alums.

Call it a sign of the times, as the traditional 9-to-5 workforce is waning, and ambitious college students are ditching dog-eared management textbooks for case studies of start-ups. Officials in the Main Line district say its teens are now clamoring to learn from other successful entrepreneurs, to study the ABCs of branding and venture capital, and launch businesses.

"What used to be considered a renegade's choice is now a viable career path," said Scott Gerber, a 30-year-old self-described "serial entrepreneur" and founder of the Young Entrepreneurs Council, an invitation-only group.

Educators in Lower Merion say their Innovation Center is one of the first high school business incubators in the nation.

In 2012, the district asked the Social Impact Consulting Group at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School to help lay the groundwork for a program to be housed in the district's administration building, and received a $7,500 grant from the Educational Foundation of Lower Merion. They learned that while incubators existed for college and graduate students, there were few for high schools, said district spokesman Doug Young.

The center offers current students and recent alums mentoring from successful local entrepreneurs, lessons in how to pitch their own start-up and develop a brand, an office with computers, grants of up to $500 a year to get underway, and space to work even after they graduate from high school.

The Freshman Select founders started the clothing firm as their senior projects, just months before their 2012 graduations from Lower Merion and Harriton High, but they were thinking far beyond high school.

Robbins, the artist of the group - though he's an accounting major at Temple University - created the designs. That first summer they sold more than 50 pieces of their contemporary street wear. By the next year, they were creating fall, winter, and spring lines, and learning to silk-screen and shoot promotional videos.

The threesome say they have since sold about 400 articles of casual clothing - items ranging from $20 to $60 - and are producing new designs at a Kensington warehouse. They have invested nearly $10,000 of their own money in the company.

Robbins said the company hoped to work with a South Street retailer next fall and was toying with the idea of a pop-up truck next summer, moving toward a goal of its own storefront.

Their start-up is just one successful nameplate to emerge from the Lower Merion program. It joins ventures like Ace the Ram (ATR) Records, a music start-up working closely with two young Philadelphia recording impresarios, and Wiz Kid Communications, a web-graphic and social media venture launched by 2012 Harriton grad Phil Hayes. Forty-two students have been involved in the business incubator and nearly 1,000 in classroom or other related programs.

The young pioneers all say they have zero interest in finding a traditional job and working for a boss. Explained Freshman Select's Tom, who studies business at Bloomsburg University: "We want to have our own hours and not wear a uniform."

"This is something we like to do," added Williamson, a business major at St. John's University in New York. "We could go out and get an internship doing something we don't like to do."

Educators say they hear such sentiments more often and at a younger age. Chuck Sacco, interim director of Drexel University's Laurence A. Baiada Institute for Entrepreneurship, said that he was meeting more high school applicants expressing passion for start-ups, and that Drexel views centers such as Lower Merion's as feeders for its own college program. "I read recently that Shark Tank" - ABC's entrepreneurial reality series - "is the No. 1 TV show that families watch together," Sacco said. "It's the culture that entrepreneurship is cool and interesting." As a result, the educational infrastructure surrounding entrepreneurship is also growing stronger. That includes Philadelphia's Schoolyard Ventures (formerly Start-up Corps), a mentoring group that works closely with Lower Merion's Innovation Center and is now aiding a growing number of schools."Most kids who go through the program aren't going to launch businesses in their career, but they will take that entire mind-set with them whatever career they go into," explained Schoolyard founder Rich Sedmak.

But some young people are determined to do it their way - and on their own. The Freshman Select founders said their parents are thrilled at their initiative. Robbins said his father even offered to invest in the company.

"I won't let him," he said. "I want to say I'm self-made."




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